Social media is ubiquitous; nearly every facet of our lives has been touched by it in some way. In the last decade, there has been explosive growth in the use of social media sites, with an estimated 2.65 billion users in 2018 — and this number is expected to reach almost 3.1 billion in 2021. In the United States, the average user spends approximately 1 hour and 57 minutes on social media each day.
Social media and faculty development: an unlikely pair?
As social media continues to grow in popularity, it has become increasingly important for those of us working in higher education to explore the exciting opportunities new technologies bring to institutions, educators, and students. We know that faculty and administrators use social media sites for their various personal, professional, teaching, and research needs. One of the more creative ways we’ve seen social media being used in recent history is for faculty development.
The term professional faculty development — or faculty development (FD) — in this article is used to describe activities and programs such as educational and coaching opportunities to faculty members to help them improve work performance (i.e., teaching, conducting research, grant writing).
It can be challenging for faculty to participate in continued professional development, as they are often crunched for time with pressure coming from all directions: teaching, research, writing, and personal obligations, too. Expense and distance can also be barriers for accessing faculty development opportunities.
Fortunately, social media can be a solution to some of these challenges: it’s free, asynchronous, and opens up opportunities that may otherwise not exist.
Academics’ relationship to social media
Some faculty may be slow to warm up to the idea of using social media in a professional capacity. Grumbles such as, “I don’t have enough time for that,” “Isn’t that for younger people?” and “I have no idea how it all works” are common complaints I’ve heard over the years.
But the truth is, academics are using social media for many reasons. In fact, more than 90 percent of college faculty report using social media in the workplace, compared to just 47 percent of employees in other industries. And they’re not just checking their Facebook feed to see what’s going on with family and friends; more than 80 percent of faculty are using some form of social media in their teaching. This tells us that faculty are comfortable in leveraging social media in their professional and instructional lives.
A world of opportunity
Many of us associate faculty development with formal degree and in-classroom training programs. But it can be difficult for faculty to attend in-person events for professional development, with barriers such as time constraints standing in the way. Fortunately, professional faculty development in present day involves using a multitude of digital platforms: websites, blogs, and yes, social media.
Gone are the days of being limited to interacting with fellow peers within your own institution or local institutions. In today’s world, social media offers the ability to disseminate information while building a community through the use of these easy-to-use, free formats. These platforms have been demonstrated to enhance professional growth opportunities.
In a study of twenty-two medical schools that were using social media to support faculty development, researchers found that although some faculty are hesitant to adopt new technologies, the flexibility and affordability of the tools offered great benefits to those who use it, and recommended that the use of social media for professional development be explored further.
Faculty mentorship in the age of social media
Mentorship opportunities are an important aspect of many faculty development programs. These opportunities help junior faculty members navigate the academic waters. But universities and colleges often struggle to operationalize an effective mentoring framework that works for both the mentor and mentee. We often see mentor-mentee pairs within the same institution or even within the same department. While this level of proximity is good in some ways, it often fails to consider the broader community as a resource.
With the advent of social media, opportunities for mentor-mentee relationships are far more broad, and even lend to interprofessional collaboration opportunities across disciplines and institutions. If your institution capitalizes on social media and other digital resources that facilitate and encourage interconnectedness, your faculty have the opportunity for mentoring relationships that exist beyond the walls of their own institution.
The proof is in the data
Sounds great, right? But does it work?
A study in Italy found that academics are primarily using social media sites as tools through which to develop meaningful peer connections, and concluded that social media can facilitate opportunities for mutual benefit that include exchange of resources, knowledge-sharing, and relationship building.
Another study looked at the usage and benefits of using social media for faculty development — Facebook in particular. Researchers surveyed individuals who were participating in a private faculty development group on Facebook. Six months after the faculty development activity concluded, researchers found that 35 percent of participants were using the platform in a professional capacity, up from just 12 percent that had used it professionally six months prior. Overall, the study found that using Facebook as a faculty development platform yielded positive participant sentiments and increased professional usage of the platform.
4-step strategy to using social media for faculty development
Ready to dip your toes in the social media faculty development waters? As a busy academic, you may be thinking, “I don’t have time for that.” But social media can open up so many opportunities for you whether you’re an administrator, educator, researcher, or all of the above. Social media offers opportunities to network organically, connecting with other academics in the spirit of learning together.
Here’s a 4-step plan for using social media either for yourself, or for encouraging faculty to use it for professional development purposes.
Step 1: Plan
Consider your personal brand and how you want to be portrayed on social media. Put some thought and consideration into your profile(s) to ensure you are accurately representing yourself and attracting the right people. Make sure your profile is up-to-date and complete, and include links to your work to share with your followers/friends/connections. Once you’ve done that, be sure to follow individuals who inspire and educate you, no matter where in the world they live.
Step 2: Listen
Learn from the people you follow. Discover who the thought leaders and influencers are in your field. Pay close attention to the hashtags folks are using and follow those, too. You can join groups on Facebook and LinkedIn that are relevant to your interests.
Step 3: Engage
Be an active, vocal participant to increase your networking opportunities. When people see you engaging, they’re more likely to reach out to you to create a connection.
Step 4: Take action
Once you’ve established yourself on social media and built your social presence, it’s time to contribute more than just tweets and post comments. Consider a blog or another digital publication as a way to build credibility and position yourself as an expert and/or thought leader.
Want some attention on your posts? Tell a story. Incorporate visuals such as photos, gifs and videos into your posts when you can. Create and foster a sense of community and camaraderie amongst you and your followers.
Soon, your efforts will pay off in an expanded network, meaningful connections with professionals in your discipline and others (interprofessional collaboration is fabulous!), and may even offer opportunities for travel and research collaborations.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not to encourage the use of social media for faculty development, consider the advantages:
Extended professional networks
Ease of use
Allows the dissemination of information asynchronously
Overall, creating a social media-based learning community is a reasonable and highly feasible option for faculty members seeking an alternative to or complement for traditional intra-institutional faculty development programs.
About the author
Lindsay Curtis is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada, where she also works as a Communications Officer for the University of Toronto. She writes about higher education, healthcare, research, parenting, and LGBTQ issues. She spends her spare time tending to her indoor plants, cycling, and volunteering for hospice. Learn more about Lindsay at www.curtiscommunications.org or follow her on Twitter: @LindsayWrites_